[First published on Vacay.ca in December 2013.]
I visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in December. It is immediately the most outstanding tourist-focused building in Canada — and right now there’s nothing in it but construction material. When it is filled with innovative and interactive displays — many of which will showcase the evolution of humanity under the rule of law — the CMHR will herald a new era for a city overdue for a tourism reboot.
Winnipeg’s reputation for too long has languished. Lambasted for its frigid temperatures in winter and buggy conditions in summer, the Manitoba capital has had much to overcome in perception. It has built momentum in recent years, thanks to an under-the-radar dining scene and the return of the city’s beloved NHL team, the Jets, who have stoked Winnipeg with more confidence and pride. Now, this. The CMHR.
The name is boring, the building is astonishing. Designed by New Mexico-based Antoine Predock, the CMHR is 260,123 square feet of whoa. It explodes out of the landscape to grab your eye and break any prejudice you have held toward the city. What is a building like this doing in Winnipeg? That, I’m sure, will be a question many will ask. Once a visitor gains some knowledge about the $351-million facility’s home, the location will make sense.
Truth is, Winnipeg has a history of grandeur that’s largely been forgotten outside of Manitoba. A century ago, it was home to 19 millionaires, more per capita than any other city in Canada, or even New York. Its Main Street is lined with former bank buildings constructed to be palaces of money. Twenty of them were positioned in a row like opulent dominoes. In their prime, they offered a spectacle of gild that would rival modern-day Bay Street in Toronto. Today, those buildings that remain have been converted into offices and restaurants.
The city’s other architecture gem, however, is still serving its original purpose. The province’s capital building, the Manitoba Legislature, was constructed between 1913-20 and was the opus of Masonic devotee Frank Worthington Simon, educated in Paris and fanatical about creating a monument that adhered to the principles of an ancient temple. And no mere millennia-old place of worship either. Simon interjected his version of the Holy of the Holies — with a hidden Ark of the Covenant and all — in the design. The building is perfectly proportioned, the clues to its true purpose deciphered in the book The Hermetic Code by academic Frank Albo. It’s also a fun attraction. A feature in this homage to King Solomon’s Temple is called the “Pool of the Black Star” and it allows whoever stands on its tiles to throw his or her voice toward the heavens with a god-like burst.
“Once you get inside the mind of the architect, you really understand what a genius he was and you never look at a building the same again,” says Don Finkbeiner, a knowledgeable guide and owner of Heartland International Travel and Tours. “Since I’ve been in here, I now find myself always looking for the hidden meaning of things, especially for things in plain sight, in other buildings.”
There are no secrets you need to know about the CMHR, though. It joins the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, and Toronto’s CN Tower as the notable architectural landmarks in a country whose cities have been far too focused on building pricey hotel/condo towers than fantastic public spaces. When the Art Gallery of Ontario unveiled its Frank Gehry upgrades in 2008, hundreds in Toronto lined up for hours to enter. That was for a renovation.
The CMHR does for Winnipeg what the I.M. Pei’s Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame did for Cleveland — create a reason to go. So much so, in fact, that Winnipeg earns the distinction as the No. 5 Place to Visit in Canada in 2014, according to Vacay.ca‘s team of travel experts. [Read about all of the 20 Best Places to Travel in Canada in 2014.]
It is the first national museum constructed since 1967 and will be the only one built outside of Ottawa. In August, the world’s travel media will arrive in Winnipeg to glimpse the city’s new star attraction a month before it opens. The annual Go Media conference (of which I am helping to coordinate) will launch a series of promotions to raise awareness of this one-of-a-kind museum whose stated purpose is to promote reflection and action about human-rights issues around the planet, including those related to First Nations in Canada.
A statue of Gandhi is outside the building. You can be sure Nelson Mandela will feature prominently in the 47,000 square feet of exhibit space. Interactive displays will allow visitors the chance to debate human-rights cases and consider different positions on particular topics. Those interactions will take place in a building flooded with light and constructed with basalt and alabaster, climbing more than 100 metres to the peak of the Tower of Hope, from which you can peer down on the staggeringly beautiful structure while standing atop a small platform and holding your breath and thinking to yourself, Ok, I’m really glad I came to Winnipeg.